The Ghost of Gawker Past

BDG’s first attempt to relaunch Gawker was aborted in 2019, but a defamation suit filed by its editorial director, Carson Griffith, against The Daily Beast lives on

The first time a revival of Gawker was attempted, it resulted in a defamation suit by its editorial director, Carson Griffith, against The Daily Beast, its media reporter Max Tani, and its editor in chief Noah Shachtman. After a lull in the lawsuit, originally filed in January 2020, the case has come back into full swing this fall, as the defendants continue their fight to have the case dismissed. Much has transpired since the story in question was first published in January 2019 — Tani recently announced his departure for Politico, Shachtman has taken over at Rolling Stone, Gawker 2.0 was scrubbed, and Gawker 3.0 has launched.

Judge Phillip Hom of the New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan is currently weighing a motion by The Daily Beast to dismiss Griffith’s case on the grounds that it does not meet recently enacted standards protecting journalists from frivolous lawsuits. Briefs were due on Monday, November 1, and a decision is expected in the coming weeks, which could have profound repercussions for the field of reporting.

The case is an extension of the debate about journalistic freedom and the limits of free speech that were central to the infamous case that brought down the original Gawker. When Terry Bollea, a.k.a. Hulk Hogan, won his suit against Gawker, which was bankrolled by tech billionaire Peter Thiel, for posting his sex tape in 2016 effectively shuttering the site’s original incarnation, many argued that the ruling flung the doors open for anyone with enough money to intimidate journalists out of doing their jobs through the threat of ruinous legal fees.

Calls for stronger legal protections for reporters were heeded in New York state. On November 10, 2020, then-Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation to expand New York’s anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuits against public participation) rules by amending state law to, among other things, raise the bar on claims of defamation, expand the definition of what is in the “public interest,” and make plaintiffs pay for the legal costs of a media organization that mounts a successful defense.

So far, there have been few opportunities to test the anti-SLAPP reforms in court. In March, a different New York State Supreme Court judge retroactively applied the new rules to a suit by a plaintiff named David Sackler whose photo mistakenly appeared in New York Post coverage of the Sackler family infamous for its involvement in the OxyContin epidemic (he’s not related). The court dismissed the case under the new rules for failing to establish proof of “actual malice” in the error and allowed the Post to ask the plaintiff to pay for its legal fees.

While any narrative that emerges from legal documents is based on a process that is contentious by design, after more than a year and a half of litigation, the docket in the case has amassed ample details about what went on behind the scenes in the first, aborted attempt to relaunch Gawker. 

Goldberg’s BDG bought the Gawker brand and archive for $1.35 million in a bankruptcy auction in July 2018. In the months that followed, he met with numerous editors in search of someone to lead the relaunch before settling on Griffith, previously the entertainment editor of Architectural Digest, who started as Gawker’s editorial director that October. For the next two months, Griffith was the sole member of the Gawker editorial team until January 3, 2019, when three other staffers started: Ben Barna, formerly the features editor of Interview, as senior editor, and Maya Kosoff, who covered tech at Vanity Fair, and Anna Breslaw, a freelance writer who frequently wrote sex advice for Cosmopolitan, as staff writers.

Without any public announcement of their roles, the team worked out of a small conference room at BDG to hatch a rebirth of Gawker. However, documents filed in the continuing lawsuit make it sound as if there were difficulties from the start. Griffith said in an affidavit that Kosoff and Breslaw were “upset at the size of the small staff when they started and seemed to blame me for this and much else they found wanting.”

One of the incidents at the center of the legal fight came on Kosoff and Breslaw’s second day on the job. On January 4, Griffith forwarded Kosoff an email chain she had been on with Erik Maza, style features director for Town & Country, and Mike Albo, a freelance writer who had worked on a piece for the magazine about the budding legal cannabis industry that was later published on January 14. Maza had started the chain by sending Albo a link to a Kara Swisher column about innovation in the pot market. After the two discussed whether their upcoming piece was well-timed or not, Albo mentioned “our little stud muffin Ben Lerer’s investment in Leaflink” in reference to the Lerer Hippeau managing partner.

Maza responded: “Ben Lerer. Drool.”
Albo: “My one good memory from the junket trip (besides meeting carson) is him in a swimsuit :)”
Maza: “Hung?”
Albo: “Ha! Omg I feel like that is a question Carson would know :)”

According to her affidavit, Griffith forwarded the chain to Kosoff at 12:30 p.m., “to see if she could use it to find a story idea about the main context of the email, which was venture capitalists’ involvement in cannabis. I had also sent the email to our senior editor Barna to see if he thought it was a good story idea as well.” A few hours later, at 3:11 p.m., Kosoff forwarded the email to her fellow staff writer Breslaw.

In addition to looking for stories, Kosoff had also been helping to recruit new writers for the reboot. On January 15, she let Griffith know in Slack that she was meeting that afternoon with a writer named Pilot, whom she described as “a person of color and nonbinary (uses they/them pronouns). their stuff is really good.” Griffith replied, “cool – consideration for staff or contributor” and Kosoff replied, using they/them pronouns four times: “staff – they tweeted a few days ago about wanting a full time job, which is why i thought of them. if they’re not interested, no big deal, but they have a good voice and a big following.”

Two and a half hours later, Kosoff returned to Slack to report the “meeting went very well,” and asked if she could introduce them to Griffith by email. Griffith replied, “yes great” and then brought up another staff candidate, identified as “nate,” who she wanted Kosoff to meet before a job offer went out: “he seems to really respect you/your opinion” and added “and bryan has like a man crush on him.” Kosoff replied, “hahaha,” and then Griffith returned to the writer Kosoff had met: “lol is pilot a girl.” Kosoff repeated that they are nonbinary, and Griffith replied, “ah, ok! i assumed by the name a guy, but i think you told me that.”

The next day, January 16, the first news of who was on the Gawker relaunch staff came in a tweet by CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy that was soon followed by a post by Laura Wagner on Splinter, a now-defunct site that was home to many former staffers of the original Gawker, with the withering headline “Here are the Media Chuds Joining Fake Gawker.” Its primary target was Griffith, whom Wagner called a “bigoted, overgrown sorority girl,” highlighting a series of tweets that ran the gamut from homophobic language to degrading remarks like “black crop fur coat i swore my maid stole magically appeared on my bed when I came home.” (Griffith has since deleted the tweets and the screenshots originally published on Splinter now have the label “This image was removed due to legal reasons,” possibly part of an image purge the since relaunched Gawker reports has been underway at Splinter’s current owner, G/O Media.) Wagner implied Kosoff had sold out to work for “a repulsive dweeb like Goldberg,” while Breslaw was dinged for writing a 2012 Tablet story headlined “Breaking Bad Karma: How the cancer victim at the center of the AMC series justifies my skepticism of Holocaust survivors.” (That piece no longer appears on Tablet’s website.)

According to Griffith’s affidavit, the Splinter story landed like a bombshell in the small conference room. Kosoff and Breslaw “began a very animated and emotional discussion, in my presence… how disastrous this article would be to their careers.” When BDG executive vice president for communications Kimberly Bernhardt entered the room, according to Griffith’s affidavit, “Kosoff began screaming at her also.”

Neither Kosoff nor Breslaw are named in Griffith’s lawsuit, nor have they submitted affidavits in the case.

Within BDG, the Splinter article was being treated as a crisis situation. Goldberg said in his affidavit that he called Kosoff that evening “to reiterate my confidence in the Gawker project.” But he said Kosoff offered her own view of things: “During that phone call, Kosoff proposed that I promote her to be the Editorial Director of the site. I was surprised and taken aback by this request.”

The following day, Trisha Dearborn, the head of HR for BDG, said in her affidavit that she sent emails to Kosoff and Breslaw to ask how they were doing after the Splinter article but got no reply. She met with them the next day, January 18, for the first time since they had started working on the Gawker relaunch. According to the defense, Kosoff and Breslaw made audio recordings of the meeting. Among the concerns they shared with Dearborn, captured in the recordings, were comments they accused Griffith of making, including, “Black people really just like writing think pieces about their identity, and we don’t really want that on our site,” and, during Breslaw’s job interview, “I found a snack I had in my pocket that I took from the office. That’s so poor person of me!”

In her legal filings, Griffith has denied making these and any other derogatory comments.

Kosoff brought up the nonbinary writer whom she had asked Griffith to meet three days earlier and said, “I didn’t tell [Griffith] beforehand because I knew she wouldn’t get it,” and added, “I’m scared to find out if they ever met.” With regard to the email about Lerer, Breslaw said she found it to be inappropriate. That morning, also according to exhibits filed in the case, Kosoff forwarded the email chain from her work account to a personal email address.

That same afternoon, according to Griffith’s affidavit, Dearborn informed her about the meeting and told her that Kosoff and Breslaw “no longer wanted to work with me.” Dearborn asked, “if I would be willing to meet with the two women.” But Griffith said Dearborn “then told me that Kosoff herself made it clear to her that she was unwilling to meet with me to resolve things at that time.”

This is when Tani first appears in the chronology laid out in the case documents. According to his affidavit, Kosoff phoned him and said she and Breslaw “had been unhappy working under Griffith,” accused her of making inappropriate remarks and said, “they had been speaking with BDG’s human resources department but, if the situation did not improve, they were planning to quit.”

Tani and Kosoff knew each other well. The night before the Splinter article, they had co-hosted one of their regular media happy hours. And, as other exhibits in the case show, they had been photographed together at media parties and while eating pizza. Tani said in his affidavit that he told Kosoff, “if she and Breslaw quit, I would be interested in writing an article.” Tani said he then told Shachtman about the call. According to Shachtman’s affidavit, “I thought this sounded like a promising article that The Daily Beast would be interested in publishing.”

Kosoff later told Tani that she and Breslaw had decided to quit and said they had “screenshots of emails and Slack messages and had recorded their conversations with BDG’s human resources staff,” and, according to Tani’s affidavit, he “asked Kosoff and Breslaw to come to The Daily Beast’s office with this evidence.”

First, though, the two writers met again with Dearborn on January 22, according to her affidavit, to discuss “several changes that BDG would be making to address their concerns, as well as several additional options that were available to them if they were interested.” She said she “explained that this was a process that would take some time, and they would not report to Carson directly during this timeframe.”

When they got to the Daily Beast office to meet with Tani later that day, Shachtman sat in on the meeting. Afterward, Shachtman said in his affidavit, “I believed Kosoff and Breslaw to be credible sources,” adding, “They were two separate individuals who each had similar experiences with Griffith, they had documents corroborating their claims, and they were willing to be named on-the-record. As a result, I told Tani that he could move forward with drafting an article explaining why Kosoff and Breslaw quit Gawker.”

At 6:19 p.m. that evening, according to exhibits, Kosoff forwarded the email with the Lerer exchange to Tani, who drafted his article that night.

At 10 a.m. the following day, January 23, Kosoff and Breslaw called Dearborn to tell her that, as she put it in her affidavit, “after reviewing the changes and options we went over the day prior, they had ultimately decided to resign effective immediately from their roles at Gawker.” At the time, Griffith said she was sitting in Goldberg’s office two doors down the hall. Dearborn came in and asked Goldberg to step outside, and then when he returned, he told Griffith that Kosoff and Breslaw had quit.

At 10:19 a.m., Tani sent an email to Goldberg and a BDG communications staffer telling them, “We’re preparing to publish a story about Maya Kosoff and Anna Breslaw’s departure from New Gawker this morning” and listed several of the allegations his story would make. “I’m preparing to publish in 60 minutes, let me know if you guys have any clarifications or questions.” At 10:48 a.m., Bernhardt replied with an on the record statement attributable to a Gawker spokesperson: “We take all claims seriously and will continue to review.”

Tani’s story went live twelve minutes later at 11 a.m. and quickly became a discussion topic on media Twitter. In the days that followed, BDG heard about the Daily Beast story from at least one advertising rep, according to exhibits. On January 25, an employee of an advertising firm wrote an email, with a subject line suggesting a sponsorship deal for a relaunched Gawker, that they were having second thoughts. “The big thing that has now come out is the bad press that was going around with Gawker yesterday. This has caused some hesitations, it’s really not a great article.”

The next day Goldberg called Shachtman and Heather Dietrick, the CEO of The Daily Beast and, as it happens, the in-house counsel at Gawker during its lawsuit with Hulk Hogan, to express concerns about the story. A day later, January 27, Goldberg emailed them, “We are likely to seek a full retraction of the story,” and said that the entire project was in question. “We are likely to postpone the launch of Gawker, probably forcing our CFO to re-forecast our annual P&L numbers,” he wrote. “This is turning into a full blown crisis. Our ask is that Daily Beast immediately issue a statement that the story is under review. This will buy us time and help stem the bleeding,” adding, “In my opinion, this story is radioactive.”

The rest of the correspondence was cordial. “I appreciate your position,” Shachtman replied. “And, as I told you yesterday, I am completely willing to follow the facts where they lead even if those facts wind up contradicting our initial reporting.” Goldberg replied, “Thank you for the quick response. Will follow up as we review more.”

The Daily Beast has not updated the story since it was originally published and, in its filings, has said it stands by its reporting.

According to an early version of Griffith’s complaint, “about seventy employees in the BDG Media office created a petition to have Ms. Griffith fired immediately; if her former employer did not do so immediately, they threatened to go to the press. Instead, her former employer removed Ms. Griffith from the office premises for two months and hired Goodwin Proctor LLP to do an external investigation.”

The law firm’s report, clearing Griffith of both unlawful conduct and creating a hostile work environment, was delivered to BDG on March 19. Two days later, former Details editor Dan Peres was announced as Gawker’s new editor in chief and that Griffith “would stay on under Mr. Peres,” according to The New York Times.

But Griffith’s filings said she was not welcomed back at the offices. “When she returned to the BDG Media workplace in April 2019,” her early complaint said, “employees would still call her racist to her face, refuse to ride in the elevator with her, and openly taunt her when she was in the bathroom stall.”

By August, Goldberg decided to shutter that particular iteration of the Gawker relaunch. “BDG indefinitely paused the Gawker project,” he said in his affidavit, “resulting in staff member departures as well as Carson and the Company agreeing to go our separate ways.”

One of the central questions in the arguments over whether the case should be dismissed under the new anti-SLAPP rules is whether The Daily Beast acted with “actual malice” when they prepared their story. Griffith’s briefs point to Tani’s friendship with Kosoff and that he did not specifically seek comment from Griffith prior to publication as “strong evidence of malice.” However, the Daily Beast refutes the claim by pointing to the article’s on-the-record sources and the documentary evidence they provided. “Simply put, there can be no actual malice where a reporter relied on first-hand sources who corroborated each other,” the defense argued. “A reporter who has no reason to doubt the accuracy of the information he has obtained has no obligation to seek verification from any conceivable additional source.”

Griffith’s recent brief also argued that the anti-SLAPP rules do not apply because her reported comments were made in private and thus do not constitute a matter of “public interest.” As the recently filed brief said, “If New York’s new anti-SLAPP law were to apply here merely because accusations of bigotry (which are not alleged to have been directed to the supposed subjects of that bigotry) are matters of ‘public interest,’ it would apply everywhere.”

But the defense maintains that Gawker’s demise made the BDG relaunch a matter of public interest. “The Gawker trial, resulting in a $140 million verdict, is one of the most famous and heavily reported trials in recent history, and the resulting bankruptcy was widely discussed by countless media outlets,” a recent brief argued. “Indeed, the relaunch of the site was covered—and continues to be covered—extensively by the press. Earlier this year, for example, Gawker made news when it announced that it was attempting yet another relaunch with a different editorial director.”

Griffith’s side responded that Gawker is beside the case: “the subject of the Article, ultimately, was Carson Griffith, and this is her lawsuit, not Gawker’s.”

Of the individuals we approached for this story, Griffith was the only one who offered comment. “A judge has already found that I’ve sufficiently pled a cause of action for defamation,” she said in a statement. “Anti-SLAPP laws are meant to prevent rich and powerful plaintiffs from using frivolous lawsuits to bankrupt our press with legal fees. They are not meant to give rich and powerful media companies impunity to bankrupt victims of defamation.”

The suit might be Griffith’s alone, but the consequences could be felt by reporters throughout New York.